The macro world outside micro schools. And a call to Edupreneurs
From the village school to the present:
The confusion around India’s current Education system lies locked somewhere between its colonial past and its globalized present and future. The indigenous village schools that were functional till the 1800s were largely replaced by the current Educational system, articulated by Lord Macaulay in 1835 and followed in letter and spirit, till date. The effort at that time was, in his own words, “to form a class who interprets between us and the millions we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.”
Even as early as the 19th or the 20th century, there were social reformers who started propagating the concept of Alternative Education which challenged the formalized and assessment driven method of education. The work of a few such historical figures are mentioned below. A few of these institutes still remain symbols of inspiration and hope.
However, if we see the majority of Indian education today, we still seem to be running on the treadmill, without a destination, intent on creating the class of people Macaulay spoke about, long after they have become irrelevant.
One of the most widely viewed TED Talks of all time, remains, Ken Robinson’s “Do schools kill creativity?” And in his TED Talk, centuries after India’s first attempts at alternative education, he narrates the stories of schools that have been successful in improving the quality of education by treating their students as individuals with different learning needs, not as roll numbers to be attached to the same indifferent syllabus.
More recently, Bill Gates has spoken about future of schooling being driven by the need for personalization in Education. Personalization that can truly harness the creative power children have rather than make them grow up to be cookie cutter moulds of each other who will never fit into the new job moulds of tomorrow that we are not even aware of. Prominent social reformers and educationists are raising the issues around the real quality and relevance of Education, issues which go much deeper and are much more complex to solve than just setting up more schools, hiring more teachers, enrolling students and incentivizing them through schemes like mid-day meals.
Kalpana Pathak, in her book on Alternative Schooling in India titled, “Breaking the Mould”, spoke about the obvious advantages of alternative schooling — the focus on non-comparative assessments, the lack of pressure, especially in the early years, low student: teacher ratio, proximity with nature, focus on developing curiosity and individuality in children. There are increasing efforts today to innovate on alternative methods of Education, including home-schooling. Recent stories of an Indian, home-schooled child receiving MIT admission further proves the same point. And in many metro cities of the country, if parents are really interested, they can find such alternative schools that are making a difference to children.
But alternative schooling has at best remained on the margins of the changes in the Education system, judging by both their own reach and by the news space and funding that has been allocated to the more popular and celebrated EdTech revolution that is sweeping the tuition and test-prep market currently.
Issues faced by Alternative schools:
Current regulations around setting up of schools as not-for-profit enterprises is one of the reasons that pushed Education entrepreneurs who wanted to innovate in Education but also to create successful, profitable businesses, to the lesser regulated space of online, supplemental learning. And given the focus on getting students ready for the job market, no wonder that such start-ups, at least the successful ones, also found investor interest, far quicker than individual, alternative schools would.
Perceptions about being too expensive or too “different” have also kept away parents who would rather send their child to another “Spell-Bee” test to build his budding resume rather than let him create his own small toy car with his budding interest in mechanics.
A key issue often faced by alternative schooling and home-schooling is the integration with mainstream curriculum, specially around the time of the Board exams. Many alternative schools follow the ICSE or the international curriculum. In fact, as a parent, whose child studies in an alternative school in Bangalore, I can see how the pressures of the mainstream adoption require even the best alternative schools to gradually replace their sandpits, lack of tests, mixed age group classes with some semblance of curriculum based assessment for the relevant school board. Their expectation is that with the strong foundational grounding provided to the children during their initial years, their critical thinking skills, empathy and reasoning skills would be developed strongly enough for them to make the right choices as they move towards the mainstream world.
On the other hand, if Universities and jobs start becoming more open with the way they admit/hire with acceptance of project portfolios, performance in open source competitions, innovations etc. as criteria for entrance, instead of just board exam results, such innovative methods of Education can themselves start moving from the supplemental, alternative corners to actually become part of the regular school system.
From Alternative schools to Micro schools and the issue of scale:
Micro schools are a relatively new terminology in the Education space. Are they smaller scale alternative schools or just another breed of Ed-tech start-ups trying to do more than supplement school education? According to my understanding, micro schools are a combination of home-schools in the lab environment, aided by a strong dose of technology. Think 18th century one room village school with a passionate, learned educator, armed with the latest cutting-edge technological tools. They can personalize because they are small. And they can experiment because they grow their curriculum organically.
Pure technological interventions, flipped classrooms, video lectures might be alternatives as well but where micro schools stand out is that they don’t position themselves as a supplementary methods of learning after five days of traditional schooling. And they attack the problem of quality of education head-on. And by keeping the scale small, they are also increasing the use of innovation and the decreasing the cost of failure.
The biggest poster child for micro schooling is currently AltSchool but for the wrong reasons. Having raised $33M from Andersen Horowitz and Founders Fund, they are far well funded than most Ed-tech start-ups. Started by serial entrepreneur, Max Ventilla, the school promises to make children ready for the world of 2030 by offering personalized learning and access to a micro-school network “that offers the warmth of a tight community while benefiting from the extensive, continuous research and analysis of in-house education architects.”
The other such schools in US include Acton Academy, Quantum Camp, KIPP and Khan Lab school by Salman Khan whose free educational videos revolutionized the way not just children but many adults could learn new concepts as well.
At Acton Academy, Jeff and Laura Sandefer have two rules for learning guides a) no shaming children, b) don’t answer questions. Acton follows a structure of a two and half hour personalized learning period each day during which the students mainly learn online. Post that, they get time for project-based learning and a Socratic seminar for discussions each day, game play on Fridays, social experiences and art.
Quantum Camp started off teaching quantum physics in a fun and simple way. They currently offer hands on experience in STEM, language and art curriculums to K8 segment and many of their students include home schoolers.
Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), with over sixty six schools incorporates the learnings from Feinberg and Levin. These include the need for lessons to be lively and school days to be longer with homework completion treated as sacrosanct and chants, songs and slogans used to energize the program.
KhanLab started, in Salman Khan’s words, “to research blended learning and education innovation by creating a working model of Khan Academy’s philosophy of learning in a physical school environment and sharing the learnings garnered with schools and networks around the world.”
The concept of micro schools is still relatively new in India. A recent article in Mint underscores the possible rise of this interesting trend, that can cause real disruption, if successful. There are schools such as Jigyasa, methods such as Playjam with its rolling school model which are being tried and tested by passionate educators who feel that the current educational system is not equipping our children for the future they will face.
The experiments are still new and there is a long road to travel. There will be questions asked on the efficacy of learning outcomes, on how easily can these models be scaled up, on how the children “manage” in the macro world outside the micro school. But what’s heartening to see is that Educators themselves are getting involved in creation of such micro schools and parents, at least a few of them, are realizing the need for their children to think beyond exams. Can these schools reach those at the bottom of the economic pyramid? If the small and controlled experiments work and more passionate teachers join the concept, there could be a way to make micro schools work across the regional and economic divide of India, over the long term.
Possibly, the most interesting point, at least for me, is that if the first generation of Ed-tech entrepreneurs brought smart technologists to solve the Education challenges, micro schools can actually inspire more Educationists to turn into entrepreneurs; freed from the shackles of the rigid school system and archaic curriculum and assessment methods.
What’s most ironical is that almost two centuries from when India’s leading social reformists articulated the concept of alternative education, we seem to be reverting back to those same ideas, albeit with a new name and a new latptop.